Upgrading the College Diet

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This morning for breakfast, I had a Pop-Tart and a diet soda.

For lunch, I had a “just add water” box noodle meal and a diet soda.

Right now, as I sit here typing, I am having a late-night dinner of a cold pastrami sandwich, frosted animal crackers, and black coffee.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a college student. This is my third year in graduate school, and the seventh of my (seemingly endless) college career. I’m ashamed to admit this, but if I had kept a food diary over the past seven years, most of the entries would read a lot like the aforementioned “meals”.

Like a lot of college students, I don’t do much cooking. If you think about it, the college lifestyle isn’t really conducive to also being a cook: either you live in a dorm with no kitchen, and you rely on a university dining plan for all of your meals; or, you do have a kitchen but, just everything else in your apartment, it’s so darn tiny that you barely have the space to store or cook food; or, you have a perfectly suitable kitchen, but you’re so busy with class/research/work/watching TV/sleeping to be bothered with fixing a hot, nutritious meal for yourself. I’d say I fall into the last category.

I love anything that’s quick and portable. If it’s long-lasting as well, even better, because that means that I can stock up on it and make less trips to the grocery store, I place I truly loathe. This means that I eat an alarming amount of over-processed, well-preserved, pre-packaged food. My freezer is stocked with frozen dinners. My cabinets are filled with single-serving, “grab-and-go” bars and snacks. I rarely even buy fresh fruit and vegetables anymore. Ready-made smoothies, anyone?

I know that eating this way isn’t too great for my health. I know that should eat proper meals, ones that require sitting and plates and cutlery. My mother, doctor, Michael Pollan, sometimes even my stomach tell me that I need to ditch my current “Western diet” and just eat a well-rounded, balanced variety of unprocessed, natural foods. So why don’t I?

Have I mentioned that I’m a college student?

Change it difficult. A complete diet overhall is a daunting task, especially for someone as food-challenged as myself. Still, that doesn’t mean that I can’t take baby steps in the right direction. Maybe I can’t shop at the farmers market every week, or make myself a hot, fresh dinner every night. However, I can re-examine some (OK all ) of the things that I eat, and do my best to replace some of my regular munchies with healthful alternatives.

Over the next few months, I’m going to take a closer look at things like ramen noodles, energy drinks, “grab-and-go” snacks, microwavable meals, and my beloved Pop-Tarts—all foods that I, like so many college students, eat on a regular basis. Then, I’m going to do my darndest to hunt down healthier substitutes. Yes, many of these substitutes will still be packaged and processed edibles (I can sense Michael Pollan’s disapproval from all the way over here), but like I said, it’s all about baby steps. I’ll take on “real” foods when I take on the “real” world, in a few more years.

  1. Jennifer

    I love this post! (You make me wish I were a grad student again…wait a minute, I AM still a grad student…)

    Is there a Trader Joe’s near you anywhere? They have some better-than-adequate ramen noodle substitutes, still not exactly Whole Foods Down On The Farm, but a lot better than the stuff I ate, and now you are eating, in college. Pricier, but not bad–I doubt if you’ll find anything healthy for 39 cents a package, anywhere. (God, we ate a lot of those noodles…)

    You can also go a really long way with a package of angel hair pasta (if you can stand whole wheat pasta, so much the better) and a jar of decent sauce, or better yet find a Saturday afternoon when you don’t feel like writing your paper and cook up a big batch of pasta sauce that you can then freeze in ziploc bags or even ice cube trays (which you then move to ziploc bags), and thaw a little as you go. Or chili that you freeze in muffin tins. The smaller the thing you freeze it in, the quicker it thaws.

    I promise when I actually develop that Granola Bars That Don’t Taste Like Cardboard recipe I’ll pass it on to you…in the meantime, the peanut butter and banana half sandwich is a good standby. :-) Good luck!

    (who’s 1 set of comps away from that Masters’…)

  2. Janie

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time. I just ate fast food for the second day in a row and I feel gross. As a college student, it’s cool to see that you understand how difficult it can be to balance nutrition, fresh food, and time when it comes to finding something to eat.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts and learning how to “make over” my eating habits!

  3. William Furr

    When I lived in a dorm, I cooked on a regular basis. The dorm had a small kitchen on each floor (each floor had about 150 students or so). Simple one-pot meals like macaroni and cheese.

    Crockpot cooking is worth looking into, as it’s really simple, easy, and efficient with your time. They might not be allowed in a dorm.

    I’m a graduate student now, but I live in an apartment with three others and our own kitchen, and I cook all the time. I have a CSA share and all that good stuff now. :)

    I think you might want to branch out beyond just finding healthier packages and instead look at some simple time-efficient cooked meals, using a crockpot, rice cooker, or hot plate. You might also be surprised how much you can do with a small kitchen.

    Anyway, good luck!

  4. Camille Rogers

    Thanks for your comments!

    @ Jennifer: I actually ate a *healthier* gluten-free noodle meal for lunch today! You’re right, there are some better Ramen substitutes out there.

    @ William: I didn’t think about bringing small cooking appliances into the mix. I’m so kitchen challenged, I don’t even have a George Forman Grill! But a lot of college students do, so I should probably write about making an easy meal with that or another gadget.

    Thanks again!

  5. Jen Clean Bin

    For me it was also the “freedom” of being able to eat what I wanted. The first year that I was on my own, I ate sugar cereal, and sweetened peanut butter, and kraft dinner, and all the things I wasn’t allowed to have growing up.

    Once I got that out of my system, I settled down, and now I’ve come full circle to home canning, shopping at the farmers market, and eating all those healthy foods my mom always wanted me to.

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